Gov. Jerry Brown's solution to meet a court-ordered prison reduction is to shift low-level state inmates to county jails, but others say turning to private prisons is a good idea as well.
Advocates say state partnerships with private prisons, like the kind found in Texas and Florida, save money and reduce overcrowding.
"It makes sense for California policymakers to explore increasing the use of public-private partnerships given that many other states are saving on the order of 5 percent to 15 percent, sometimes more, and that they are receiving quality correctional services," said Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at Reason Foundation, a policy think tank advocating privatization.
"In a difficult fiscal environment, it would behoove California policymakers to look at all the options that are out there. When you look at the experience of other states, private correctional services are delivering on cost savings and delivering on meeting the goals of the states' correctional systems," Gilroy said.
Another advocate for California prison privatization is local Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, who authored a bill to extend the state's private prison housing contracts, which sunset on June 30.
Measures to curb crowding during the Schwarzenegger administration included sending hundreds of low-level offenders to private prisons out of state. About 9,600 inmates are currently housed in private facilities in Arizona,Mississippi and Oklahoma. Donnelly said privatization should be expanded.
"When we want something done efficiently, and we want it done at the lowest possible cost, we privatize it," Donnelly said.
"The California state government has proven that they cannot operate our system efficiently, and this issue has been going on for over a decade. I think we need to copy the Texas public-private partnership that shifts a large part of lower level offenders into private prisons."
Donnelly's bill was killed in March by the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
Despite the effort, a Brown administration spokesman said the current private prison contracts will not expire under existing executive order, with 9,600 state inmates remaining housed in private prisons outside of California. The administration, however, hopes to reduce the state's reliance on out-of-state beds, said Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Prison privatization in California will remain a difficult nut to crack with heavy opposition coming from the powerful prison guards union and many lawmakers.
Loni Hancock, the Oakland-based Democratic chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said she supported the governor's plan.
"I don't believe we should privatize prisons in California," Hancock said.
"One of the key elements of the governor's realignment plan is to end the use of out-of-state prison contracts, including private prisons, and refocus state dollars on community correctional programs that would reduce recidivism."
Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said private prisons are bad for both public safety and fiscal responsibility.
"They have a horrible track record as far as making sure facilities stay secure, with an escape rate 20 times higher than the California Department of Corrections," Sherman said.
Sherman said private prisons have higher rates of violence, higher staff turnover, less training, and the state retains all liability "when the (private prison) companies screw up and the taxpayers are on the hook."
Gilroy said the characterizations from the union are "conjecture and scare stories."
"The simple fact of the matter is, states and the federal government would not be using private prisons if everything that their detractors say was true," Gilroy said.
"Bad things can happen in good public prisons and bad things can happen in good private prisons. These prisons are not utopias."